The selected text is a political
discourse held by a Prime Minister addressing a foreign country’s Parliament.
Therefore, it could be classified into the International Relations / Diplomacy
Its author was Tony Blair, UK Prime
Minister from 1997 to 2007. Under his leadership the Labour party achieved
three consecutive general election victories. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, from
an English father and an Irish mother, he is himself an example of the British
and the Irish as being “irredeemably
The speech’s audience was composed
by the members of the two houses of the Irish Parliament (also known as Oireachtas). Blair’s address to the
Irish Parliament was held on November, 26th 1998 in Dublin, capital of the
Republic of Ireland.
Following the Acts of Union (1800)
that joined the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland
(constituting the United Kingdom), a merged Parliament was established in
London, with Irish territories represented under its authority.
In 1919, Irish republicans rebelled
against the UK Parliament, founded their own government body (Dáil Éireann) and boycotted the home
rule legislature created by the British. After a violent insurrection, Ireland
succeeded in achieving its independence in 1921. Following the adoption of the
Irish constitution, in 1937, the modern Oireachtas
was officially formed.
Tony Blair was the first British
Prime Minister ever to address the Irish Parliament. This event can be
understood as an outcome of the Good Friday Agreement, signed in April 1998,
between the British and Irish governments, and representatives from
Northern-Ireland political parties. The Omagh Bombing, in August, contributed
to raise national and international support for the peace process. This agreement
was supported by the Irish citizens in two referendums held that same year and
was about to come into force when Tony Blair addressed the Irish Parliament.
Causes and motivation
In late May 1998, Blair visited his
Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern. Their meeting focused on the peace process in
Northern Ireland, disturbed by violent events in Ulster. According to the news
of the time, the Irish Prime Minister “was
pressed to extend the invitation in the Dail – the Dublin parliament – last
week, to honour Mr Blair’s contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process”2.
The Good Friday Agreement put a
symbolic end point to the period known as The Troubles. It included a number of
relevant actions aiming to keep peace in the region: a devolved government, the
decommissioning of weapons, prisoner release, a reinforcement of civil rights
(including the organization of a referendum) and “parity of esteem”. These
events paved the road to an official visit of the British Prime Minister to the
We can identify two main purposes in
Blair’s address. On the one hand, Blair mentioned that “the peace process is at a difficult juncture. Progress is being made,
but slowly. There is an impasse over the establishment of the executive; there
is an impasse over decommissioning”. He, representing the UK government,
was urging the Irish government to find a solution for the dispute about the
disarmament of the IRA. In this sense, he was reaffirming his government’s’
compromise to the sustainability of the peace process.
On the other hand, he was justifying
one of the most debatable decisions within the Good Friday Agreement, the
prisoner release: “None of this is easy.
I get many letters from the victims of violence asking why we are freeing
terrorist prisoners. It is a tough question but my answer is clear: the
agreement would never have come about if we had not tackled the issue of
prisoners”. Nevertheless, it is important to take into account the
overwhelming popular support of the Good Friday Agreement, both in the Republic
of Ireland (94,39% positive votes in the referendum held in May 1998) and in
Northern Ireland (71,12%)3.
His official address to the Irish
parliament was a symbol of the mature relationship between both governments,
that could leave behind centuries of enmity and start a relationship based on
understanding, respect and cooperation towards common goals. The speech
includes varied mentions to the past but the main message is future-centred.
Projection and consequences
Blair’s address to the Irish
Parliament can be understood as a first step towards normalizing the difficult
political / diplomatic relationship between the neighbouring countries.
Following the peace process in Northern Ireland, UK and Ireland were able to
build a path towards a sustainable peaceful relationship. Nowadays, critics
tend to consider the Northern Ireland peace process as an example of “best
practice” in the field of conflict resolution.
Moreover, Blair’s reputation was
increased after his participation in the negotiations. It is no coincidence
that, after the peace process success, he was re-elected as a leader of the
Labour party and stayed in office for a decade. His successor represented the
same party, meaning that public support to their policies was still strong ten
years after the Good Friday Agreement. However, the Labour party’s success
cannot be exclusively attributed to the Northern Ireland peace process.
Tony Blair’s address to the Irish
Parliament is a useful document to understand the peace process between the UK
and Ireland. It describes the past, focusing on the centuries marked by enmity
and violence (“after all the long and
torn history of our two peoples”), to make a point about the possibilities
opened by a future together (“So much
shared history, so much shared pain. And now the shared hope of a new beginning”).
The strategy to leverage these possibilities is the mutual understanding of
differences and the necessary empathy to do so. The binary opposition “past vs
future” and the role of empathy as a midwife to the desired future are the
central themes of this text.
The past is described by addressing
a number of common issues shared by the UK and Ireland that, at the same time,
separate and draw them closer:
The citizens of both countries share
common ancestors that were equally subject to external influence, exemplified
in the “same waves of invasions: Celts,
Vikings, Normans — all left their distinctive mark on our countries”.
Closer to our time, there were important migration movements from Ireland to
Great Britain, especially during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century
(“virtually every community remembers
that its roots lie in Irish migration…”). Blair himself is half British-half
Irish: “Ireland, as you may know, is in my blood”.
? Religion: The 16th and 17th century were a
particularly turbulent time in the British religious landscape: the
establishment of the Church of England in 1534, the emergence of new forms of
Protestant Christianity during the 17th century and the persistent tension -and
at times persecution- of Roman Catholics, contributed to political upheavals.
Blair stresses the fact that not only Irish citizens suffered these conditions:
“There were, after all, many in Britain
too (. . .) who were persecuted for their religion, or who were for centuries
and International relations: Political ties between both countries were established in
the 16th century through colonisation and war, that resulted in the British
domination of Ireland and the long-lasting resentment caused by the
confiscation of land and the Penal Laws that punished Catholics and dissident
Protestants: “Over a thousand years ago,
the monastic traditions formed the basis for both our cultures. Sadly, the
power games of medieval monarchs and feudal chiefs sowed the seeds of later
Domination was not only political;
it also had economic implications. The British relationship to Ireland must be
understood within the wider context of its imperialist expansion: Britain ruled
over Ireland, as well as it ruled over North America, India, Egypt or
Australia, among many other territories. Decolonisation was a gradual process
in which the UK was obliged to rethink its geopolitical role, leaving behind
its behaviour as an “invincible power”:
“I hope, a Britain emerging from its
post-Empire malaise, modernizing, becoming as confident of its future as it
once was of its past”.
Even though Blair’s speech draws on
the shared past of the British and Irish peoples, the central concept is the
future: “We need not be prisoners of our
history”; “the old notions of
unionist supremacy and of narrow nationalism are gradually having their fingers
prised from their grip on the future”; “we
can try to put our histories behind us, try to forgive and forget those age-old
enmities”. The recurrent mention of children is also a symbol of the
future: “I reflect on the sheer waste of
children taught to hate when I believe passionately children should be taught
to think”; “Let us confront its
challenge with confidence, and together give our children the future they
As anticipated earlier, Blair
stressed the role of empathy in his speech, focusing on the need to understand
the points of view and the emotions of all the parties involved in the
conflict: “We can understand the emotions
generated by Northern Ireland’s troubles”; “It is all about belonging. The wish
of unionists to belong to the UK. The wish of nationalists to belong to Ireland.
Both traditions are reasonable. There are no absolutes. The beginning of
understanding is to realize that”. This focus on empathy radically opposes
the traditional ethnocentrism that characterised the British Empire (and other
empires) along its history.
Perhaps this idea, officially presented by a British
head of government while visiting the legitimate government of an independent
foreign country, signaled a threshold in UK’s History.
1 All quotes included in this analysis were taken from Tony
Blair’s Address to the Irish Parliament.